Outgoing Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma on Tuesday called for negotiations to solve this country’s bitter election crisis, which escalated when 150,000 supporters of pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko gathered to protest the results of Sunday’s balloting and Yushchenko himself took a symbolic oath of office.
The oath-taking had no legal meaning but signaled dramatic rejection of an official vote count in the runoff that favored Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich.
Kuchma’s proposal called for “consultations between participants in the election process.” It was not immediately clear whether the two sides would agree to substantive talks. But Taras Stetskiv, an opposition spokesman, said Yushchenko planned to meet with Yanukovich today in a session to be mediated by Kuchma, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported.
In Washington, U.S. officials harshly denounced the conduct of the election, with the White House and State Department calling for a thorough investigation and urging that no winner be declared. The State Department also summoned the Russian ambassador for talks.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, who had indicated his preference for Yanukovich during the campaign, also called for a peaceful solution and backtracked from earlier indications that he already considered Yanukovich the winner, emphasizing instead that there was still no final result.
Yushchenko, who claims to be the legitimate winner of the election, took his mock oath in front of supporters in parliament after the conclusion of an emergency session. He then addressed the massive crowd in and around Kiev’s central square, calling for public officials and police to come over to the protesters’ side.
“Guns should speak the truth,” Yushchenko declared. “Guns should never speak against their people.”
Kuchma, who backed Yanukovich as his successor, described the oath-taking and protests as “political farce” that was “extremely dangerous and may lead to unforeseeable consequences.”
But he also opened the door for a solution other than forceful imposition of the official results, which have been condemned by Western governments and foreign observers as fraudulent.
“We should peacefully and with consideration discuss the complicated situation and propose to society real steps for getting out of the crisis,” Kuchma said. “I am convinced today that this is the only route in the search for a balanced position on not allowing Ukraine to split into pieces.”
Opposition spokesman Stetskiv, Itar-Tass reported, described Kuchma as having three options: “Either to step down to give up his place to people’s president Yushchenko, go to a strong-arm scenario, or declare the second round of elections illegitimate and take an unprecedented step -- repeat voting with all-out monitoring.”
With more than 99% of votes counted, the Central Election Commission placed Yanukovich ahead 49.4% to 46.7%. An exit poll financed in part by the U.S. Embassy and other Western diplomatic missions had shown Yushchenko winning 54% to 43%.
Foreign observers have alleged that various abuses were used to inflate Yanukovich’s totals and reduce Yushchenko’s votes. These included the disenfranchisement of many citizens through faulty voter lists, the use of absentee ballots and mobile ballot boxes to allow multiple voting in support of Yanukovich, and illegal measures to invalidate results in districts favoring Yushchenko. There also have been allegations of direct computer manipulation of the vote count.
In televised remarks Tuesday before Kuchma made his proposal to negotiate, Yanukovich said: “I categorically will not accept the actions of certain politicians who are now calling people to the barricades. This small group of radicals has taken upon itself the goal of splitting Ukraine.”
Speaking in parliament before the end of a session called in an unsuccessful bid to overturn the official results, Yushchenko declared that the country was “on the threshold of a civil conflict.”
“We have two choices: Either the answer will be given by the parliament, or the streets will give an answer,” he said.
After his speech to the crowd in the square, thousands of demonstrators marched to the presidential offices, where they faced off -- maintaining discipline and order -- against rows of riot police equipped with shields, who also remained nonviolent.
In Washington, the State Department said the United States might have to review its ties with Ukraine unless election problems were addressed.
“The United States is deeply disturbed by extensive and credible indications of fraud committed in the Ukrainian presidential election,” the White House said. “We strongly support efforts to review the conduct of the election and urge Ukrainian authorities not to certify results until investigations of organized fraud are resolved.
“We call on the government of Ukraine to respect the will of the Ukrainian people, and we urge all Ukrainians to resolve the situation through peaceful means. The government bears a special responsibility not to use or incite violence, and to allow free media to report accurately on the situation without intimidation or coercion.”
The wording of the White House statement was unusually strong given Ukraine’s support for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. Ukraine’s 1,600 troops form the fifth-largest contingent, not including U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Putin, speaking to reporters during a visit to Lisbon, noted the European Union had urged a nonviolent solution, then said, “I support this 100% and I appeal to all parties that this take place within the field of law.”
Elizabeth Jones, assistant secretary of State for European affairs, spoke Tuesday with Ukraine’s ambassador to spell out U.S. concerns about the election. A State Department spokesman said that even though Russia had initially recognized a winner in the election, U.S. officials were awaiting a clearer outcome.
“We certainly don’t believe there’s a declared winner at this point,” said spokesman Adam Ereli. He said that if the government took power in the face of allegations of fraud, it would have “consequences for our bilateral relations. There’s no question about that.” Ereli would not specify what actions U.S. officials might consider.
In one sign that Putin’s initial recognition of Yanukovich as the victor was causing friction with the United States, Jones summoned the Russian ambassador to a meeting, a State Department spokesman said Tuesday.
“While we do not comment on the details of these meetings, we can confirm that Ukraine was discussed,” said the spokesman, who added that the meeting took place Monday.
In Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, some Foreign Ministry employees released a statement throwing their support behind Yushchenko.
“We cannot remain silent and observe a situation which could call into doubt Ukraine’s democratic development and destroy the efforts of many years to return our country to Europe...,” the statement said. “A nation should be headed by a leader who enjoys the real trust of the Ukrainian people and whose personal moral authority will be decisive in strengthening Ukraine’s authority.”
Yushchenko, 50, seen as a market-oriented democratic reformer, has said he would move the country quickly toward closer ties with the U.S. and Western Europe. He is a former prime minister whose wife, Kateryna, is a Ukrainian American born in Chicago. His power base is in western Ukraine and Kiev.
Yanukovich, 54, who is popular in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking east, has emphasized economic ties with Russia. Putin spoke favorably of him during an hourlong interview on Ukrainian television in late October, just before the first round of voting.
Putin expressed discomfort Tuesday at how the election had been widely viewed as a struggle with geopolitical overtones.
“One candidate is depicted as being pro-Russian, the other as pro-Western,” he said. “It’s absolutely counterproductive and it’s a mistake from the point of view of international relations.”
Speaking to reporters in Berlin on Tuesday before Kuchma’s call for negotiations, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), President’s Bush’s envoy to observe the election, described Kuchma as a baseball player with two strikes against him, for having failed to ensure free and fair elections in the first and final rounds.
Lugar had told a news conference in Kiev on Monday that “a concerted and forceful program of election day fraud and abuse was enacted with either the leadership or cooperation of governmental authorities.” He also called on Kuchma to correct this by “producing
In Berlin, he said it was still not clear whether Kuchma would do this. “It’s conceivable the president may not step up to it,” Lugar said. “He may finally say this is a bridge too far.... That’s sort of strike three, and there will be consequences, a lot of them.”
Those measures, he said, should “really single out the malefactors who have clearly done almost all they could to destroy the possibilities of a free and fair election.”
The U.S. government is believed ready to use visa restrictions and other sanctions against members of Ukraine’s political and economic elite viewed as responsible for the election fraud.
A senior Western diplomat in Kiev listed three reasons Kuchma might seek a legitimate resolution to the crisis: a desire to do what was good for his country, concern about his own historical legacy and a wish to have a comfortable retirement that could include travel to Western Europe and the United States.
Times staff writers Tyler Marshall and Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.